Sidney Crosby Returns, American Hockey Wins

I am not supposed to like Sidney Crosby. I’m not exactly part of his key demographic. I’m not a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals assured that. I’m not a Canadian with the 2010 Olympics not so far in my rear view mirror. I’m not one of the thousands (and I mean thousands) of American youth hockey players wearing No. 87 in rinks from Pennsylvania to California.

While I am none of those things, I have grown to respect and ultimately like Sidney Crosby (In spite of that whole Olympic thing. That was a rough one). When you consider the way he plays the game, the things he can do on the ice and the impact he has had off of it, it’s actually quite difficult for me to dislike him.

However, Crosby has no shortage of haters (who, I’m told, gon’ hate). He’s quite possibly the most polarizing player in the National Hockey League. I’m unsure if Gretzky or Lemieux ever garnered such passionate debate back and forth among the hockey faithful.

You either love Crosby or you hate him. There is very little ground for anyone to fall in between. Perhaps that is what makes him as popular as he is. No matter what side you fall on, you’re probably going to talk about him a lot in a given season. Whether it’s an amazing offensive performance or he dives or he’s injured or he was boring in an interview or whatever… the list goes on.

When you have that many people talking about you, it means you’re doing something right. You can’t expect everyone to love you, unless you’re Paul Bissonnette of Twitter fame, but I suppose even BizNasty has his detractors (why?).

No matter if you love him or hate him, you have to be pleased he’s healthy. The game is better off when Sidney Crosby is in it. He generates conversation, debate, he inspires, he angers, he does everything a superstar is supposed to do.

Because Crosby is part of almost daily hockey conversation and because of what he’s accomplished on the ice at the still incredibly young age of 24, he’s become the most important player in the National Hockey League.

Not only that, but he’s become the most important player in American hockey. That’s right. A Canadian player has become the most important player in terms of impact on the American game. I mean, it’s not the first time that’s happened. I’m not old enough to remember an NHL without Wayne Gretzky in it, but it’s safe to say he left a lasting impact on American hockey. He’s one of the few Canadians in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame for cripes sakes, and he absolutely deserves to be there.

Crosby’s impact can be felt in the youth hockey rinks across the country when you see a little guy or girl skating around the ice with an 87 on their back. As I mentioned earlier, it’s quite literally thousands of kids.

If you’re in Chicago, you see a lot more 88s and 19s in the youth hockey games. If you’re in Raliegh, you’ll see 12s and 53s. In Nashville, you might find a lot of 6s and 20s. In Buffalo there may be a plethora of 26s. In Dallas, kids used to fight over No. 9. In Tampa, there’s a whole bunch of 91s and 4s. However, in all of those places, you are almost guaranteed to find plenty of 87s. I’d imagine in Pittsburgh, there’s an 87 on just about every youth team.

Western Pennsylvania is where Crosby’s impact is largest, for obvious reasons. The buzz created by being home to the game’s best player has taken the area by storm over the last six seasons.

Before Crosby came to town, the youth hockey numbers in Western PA were pretty stagnant. There wasn’t a lot going on. It certainly wasn’t growing by any significant margin. Even after 87 arrived, it took a little while to get it going.

In 2005-06, Crosby’s first season with the Pens, Western Pennsylvania had a hockey-playing membership of 8,665. Despite a 102-point performance from Crosby, the Penguins finished 15th in the East. Hard to generate a lot of excitement there.

Coming off of that dismal season, Western Pennsylvania’s membership rose by a mere 27 players to 8,692 in 2006-07, but the influence was beginning to build. The Penguins finished fifth in the East, with Crosby registering 120 points that year.

On the heels of a playoff season, membership slightly spiked to 8,986, however things were about to explode. The Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08. While the Penguins lost, the buzz was enough to give the area a pretty decent spike in membership.

Coming off of that Finals appearance, membership grew by 526 players to 9,512 in 2008-09, the biggest boost in years. Things were just beginning to warm up.

With Crosby posting 103 points in the regular season and another 31 in the playoffs en route to leading Pittsburgh to its first Stanley Cup title since 1992, the Steel City was poised for a hockey frenzy.

As big of a deal as Crosby is, a championship is bigger. Nothing brings out the enthusiasm like a title. As I documented in my post about “The Stanley Cup Effect,” Western PA’s membership jumped by more than 1,000 hockey players from 2008-09 to 2009-10. On the heels of the Cup, 10,866 Western Pennsylvanians were playing hockey.

Though the Penguins were unable to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009-10, Sidney Crosby did record his first 50-goal season. With the Stanley Cup still fresh in everyone minds and the best player in the league getting better, membership spiked even higher.

Last year, there were 12,311 registered hockey players in Western Pennsylvania, a 13.3 percent increase from the year before and the largest bump in well over a decade. The most encouraging number to come out of the most recent increase was 7,861. That is the number of players under the age of 14 registered in Western Pennsylvania.

The more youth players an area has, the more likely it is to sustain that growth and retain players. The younger you get them, the more likely it is you keep them. Crosby has helped thousands of kids catch the hockey bug at a young age.

Jesse Spector of Sporting News covered this very topic previewing Crosby’s return and dug a little deeper into the numbers. He also spoke to a variety of players and execs about Crosby’s impact. It’s a great read.

The impact of Crosby is not only felt in Pennsylvania, which now has the fourth largest hockey-playing population in the country, but throughout the country.

Consider that coming out of the 2004-05 lockout hockey’s popularity was approaching a dangerous low in the United States. USA Hockey’s membership numbers were on the decline as well. However, when hockey returned, it came back with two of the most electrifying players to grace the NHL ice. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Crosby, along with Alexander Ovechkin, has helped reinvigorate hockey in the U.S. By coming into the league and performing in ways previously not seen in the NHL, they’ve given the NHL a face, or two faces.

While Ovi is the over-exuberant, flashy Russian that gets you out of your seat. Crosby is the reserved, yet exciting star that leaves you wanting more. They’ve been a big reason the game is moving in the right direction.

In the post-lockout season, USA Hockey’s membership sat at 442,077. In 2010-11, membership reached an all-time high of 500,579. That’s a national increase of 13.2 percent  over that span.

Considering where hockey was right after the lockout to where it is now, is there any question of the impact made by players like Crosby and Ovechkin?

When Crosby went down with injury, there was growing concern he might not be able to come back, and even if he did, maybe he wouldn’t be the same. Could you imagine a player of that importance being lost in a time when hockey was just beginning to gain all this steam? The fact that he has come back and showed last night that he’s still got it is huge for the game.

It’s particularly great for American hockey. His comeback was covered like a national event. It was an important moment in America nsports. It signified Crosby’s health, first and foremost, but also that Crosby, and this hockey thing, is here to stay and we’re all just getting warmed up.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Sidney Crosby has played a significant role in the growth of American hockey. And for that, he’s pretty alright in my book.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in Grow the Game, NHL, USA Hockey, Youth Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sidney Crosby Returns, American Hockey Wins

  1. Mike Bradley says:

    Great post, Chris. I pretty much fall in your boat on Crosby, being that I’m not Canadian or a Pens fan, but if there’s one player I enjoy watching play in the NHL it’s him. His talent level seems endless, but he still works hard for everything he’s accomplished. Now if we could only get an American to play at that caliber.

  2. Al says:

    Chris, similar thoughts on Crosby. This could be a positive for the sport. Not only would kids and parents aspire to perform like Crosby but the assurance that it is possible to bounce back from a concussion as well. People may feel that there is now a proven protocol to have success with these types of adversities.

    Looking back to the final 2 teams in the draft lottery that year, they were Pittsburgh and Anaheim. I have often wondered what would of happenend if Anaheim would of got Crosby with the first overall pick. What would of been the effect in the SoCal market? I vaguely remember a comment made by Wayne Gretzky following his arrival to L.A. about the fervor in that market. It was something to the effect of if there were enough facilities to accomodate the number of kids wanting to play hockey at that time, it would be all over for Canada. Of course it sounded much like an underdog comment but none-the-less, it is definitely something to ponder.

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